2015 – a year of European failure

We desperately need a new approach to the migrant crisis next year


At least 24 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean in the last week, bringing the total known deaths to 3,695 as of last Friday. Meanwhile, in Europe’s capital cities, politicians argue about ways to deal with this humanitarian crisis.

The public and political debate about the Mediterranean refugees is also intertwined with other migration issues – in the UK these include concerns about Eastern European labour migration. The movement of people, into and within Europe, is threatening the existence of the EU in its current form. Now, more than ever, we need bold policies that draw from evidence.

Nearly one million people have claimed asylum this year in Europe. The majority of them are from Syria, but others are from Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other countries. Many are fleeing war and human rights abuses, although some migrants have made the journey because they want to work.

The drowning of Aylan Kurdi at the beginning of September was meant to mark a turning point in European migration policy. Since then, there have been three major EU summits, most recently in Valletta in November. There have also been a number of mini-summits on migration and the subject has dominated EU ministerial meetings, most recently last week in Brussels.

This intensive diplomatic has resulted in a small-scale resettlement plan, moving refugees from Italy and Greece to countries in northern Europe, although many EU states have opted out of this. The EU has also promised increased aid to Turkey to try and limit the transit of migrants through this country.

The Valletta summit focused on actions in migrants’ countries of origin, looking at ways to slow undocumented migration. It proposed the expansion of legal migration routes, as well as setting up a Euro 1.8 billion development fund.

While there have been positive outcomes at a European level, there has also been much posturing and disagreement. The new EU border force, proposed last week, is tough-talking bluster, as the EU already has an external border agency, Frontex.

So what should EU leaders be doing? Fences and closed borders will not stop the problem; rather they will shift elsewhere. Hungary was the first country to build a fence, but since then others have been erected. At the same time, border posts have been closed, undermining the Schengen freedom of movement principle.

The solutions lie in actions in migrants’ countries of origin to deal with the causes of migration, effective action in countries that border Europe, legal routes into Europe and workable EU strategy to deal with the people who arrive by boat.

Life as a migrant in Libya, Turkey and Lebanon is dire, leading many people to risk their lives in the hands of people smugglers. Turkish law means that Syrians in that country cannot claim full UN refugee status and face very limited rights to employment and healthcare.

The EU has promised £2.1 billion aid to Turkey to help it deal with migration, but within hours of this announcement this autumn, over 1,000 Afghans and Syrians were rounded up and detained. This has only driven migrants further underground, or forced them to take to the seas in dinghies. Actions in so-called transit countries must respect human rights and support the resettlement of some refugees.

Those who arrive in Europe need their asylum applications processed quickly. Despite some extra resources, reception facilities are still very overstretched in Greece, with thousands sleeping rough on the islands and in city centres.

There needs to be a more effective sharing of responsibility for refugees across the EU – involving all member states, including the UK and eastern European nations. At present, the Greek, Italian and Maltese governments are bearing the burden of those who arrive by sea, with asylum applications per head of population in Italy roughly three time the level of the UK.

Such a sharing of responsibility will require cash transfers from countries such as the UK, or agreeing to take a proportion of refugees.  

The 2014 Dublin 3 regulation, the most recent version of this inter-governmental treaty, provides opportunities for family reunion. Where an asylum application is lodged in Greece, but the applicant has close family ties, for example, in Germany, it should be possible to transfer the case to Germany.

However, this process is bureaucratic and slow and is also not understood by migrants who instead evade the authorities for fear of jeopardising the chance of family reunion.

For those who do not qualify for asylum or legal migration routes, dignified and legal removal from the EU is required.

We also need politicians to be honest about what they can and cannot achieve. Promising a tough new border force, then not delivering only lessens public trust in politicians and the EU.

The solutions to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean are complex and involve measures focused on asylum and others targeted at undocumented migration. These all require political will and money. But if we want to preserve the good things that the EU has brought for us, we need our leaders to be bold and honest in 2016.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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